'Plastics' a key word in several Vermont bills

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BENNINGTON — A word state lawmakers might hear often this session is the same one Dustin Hoffman's character famously heard in "The Graduate" — plastics.

"Plastics really is a focus now," said Paul Burns, executive director of Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

He was referring to a half-dozen bills before the Legislature relating to the pollution and resource management issues largely attributable to ubiquitous drink and food containers and single-use bags.

Burns said lawmakers are becoming more aware that plastics waste "is a plague on our planet, that we are virtually drowning in the stuff ... This is a very real threat to our environment, and to human beings as well."

That growing awareness, he said, has created "an incentive among policy-makers that is very strong."

The chief interest for VPIRG, Burns said, is on "restrictions on the sale side for single-use plastics. We think that is the direction we need to go."

It is now generally acknowledged that "we can't recycle our way out of this," he said, adding, "The answer is to use less."

Burns said of plastics waste, "This stuff will be around for hundreds of years, but it is used [on average] for just five minutes. If the Pilgrims had come here with plastic containers, we would still see them."

Several bills

Among bills before the Legislature are proposals calling for a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags — something a number of communities have passed or are considering; a ban on most uses of polystyrene (foam); and reintroduction of a bill expanding the state's 1970s-era "bottle bill," hiking the deposit from 5 to 10 cents and adding containers holding sports drinks, teas, water, wine drinks and other drinks that were not prevalent when the original legislation was enacted.

Another bill calls for a study of microplastics in Vermont streams, lakes, groundwater and drinking water supplies. That refers to broken down bits of plastic found throughout the environment, often gathering in streams and in the world's oceans, as well as in the fish that humans consume.

Microplastics also have been detected in several brands of bottled water, and the bill calls for assessing a sampling of those products.

"I think it strikes a chord," said Rep. David Durfee, D-Shaftsbury, a co-sponsor of the microplastics bill, H.55. "I think this is because it deals with the safety of our drinking water, which is an issue that has come up in Bennington — not just with an issue like PFOA but in the testing for lead in school drinking water."

He added, "I hope this bill will draw a little more attention to just what happens to plastics (in the environment)."

A study of microplastics in Vermont could answer some outstanding questions, Durfee said, especially concerning the potential effects on health.

"So, let's find out," he said.

Advocate enthused

"First, I think they are all forward-minded bills, and I am very excited that our state Legislature is taking action on these important environmental and public health matters," said Elizabeth Schumacher, who has been working with Climate Advocates of Bennington, which proposes a plastic bag ban in the town.

"I think it is great that they are planning to study microplastic contamination in our water and environment," she said. "Water quality has been a huge issue nowadays with lead, PFOA, etc.; it is a major concern that is critical to our public health and vitality."

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She also praised efforts to control polystyrene use, but added, "Again it is a step forward, but I wish we could ban polystyrene foam altogether and find eco-friendly solutions instead of encapsulating the polystyrene."

Another bill, H.74, which proposes restrictions on single-use bags, plastic straws and polystyrene food packaging "is the most forward and promising bill out of all three," Schumacher said. "Although I think that it is a great idea and I am happy that it is moving forward, my only concern is with the short period of time and size of the impact; how are they going to buffer the effect for businesses, address the concerns of citizens and educate the public?"

The bill would take effect July 1.

A comprehensive bill?

Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Addison, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, is focusing on single-use plastic bags and also co-sponsoring with Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, expansion of the state's bottle bill, S.60, and he is a likely supporter of other plastics waste legislation.

"I support a statewide ban on single-use bags," he said, but he also will propose delaying adoption for a year to allow a summer study group to explore the issues involved and assess the effectiveness of existing local bans.

Bray would recommend that all stakeholders on the issue meet to "work through how you would do this on a much broader scale So, let's slow down, respect their [town's] process, learn from them, and then build it into a statewide ban."

A handful of communities have instituted bans (such as Brattleboro and Wilmington), and others, such as Bennington, are considering one. "This is something that many Vermonters are interested in seeing," he said.

Grocers and other business people also have shown an interest in restricting or banning plastic bags, he said, but they would like to avoid "a patchwork effect" of having different ordinances or no ordinance from town to town.

Bray said he'd like to see a comprehensive bill next year to deal with all of the plastics waste-related containers Vermonters use, and possibly take on issues like microplastics, polystyrene use, plastic straws and container deposits.

Concerning single-use bags, Bray said Vermont consumers "may not know how many of these bags are out there."

He said residents already are paying indirectly an estimated $13.3 million per year for businesses to purchase some 330 million bags. The cost, he said, "is baked into the price of everything you are buying in the store."

The environmental costs of manufacturing billions of plastic bags from petroleum worldwide also are significant, Bray said, as they are in the manufacture of billions of plastic beverage containers, a high percentage of which wind up in landfills and must be replaced.

Legislation involving plastics wastes include the following:

- S60 — This bill would expand the beverage container deposit redemption system to include water bottles, wine bottles, and containers for all noncarbonated and carbonated drinks, except for milk, rice milk, soy milk, almond milk, hempseed milk, and dairy products. The bill also would increase the deposit on all beverage containers, except those containing liquor, from five cents to 10 cents.

- H55 — Proposes to require the Secretary of Natural Resources to contract with a consultant or organization to study the extent of microplastic contamination in the environment and drinking water of Vermont.

- H74 — This bill proposes to prohibit food service establishments from providing carryout bags, expanded polystyrene food service products, and plastic straws to customers. It proposes prohibition of plastic carryout bags, expanded polystyrene and single-use plastic straws

- H50 — Would require that when a person installs a buoy, dock or floating structure in state waters, polystyrene foam used for flotation shall be encapsulated by a protective covering or shall be designed to prevent the polystyrene foam from disintegrating into the water. The bill also would prohibit a person from selling, distributing, or using certain expanded polystyrene products in or on the waters of the state or within 250 feet of a water body if the not product or encapsulated.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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